Expert Q&A: Understanding emotional regulation in autism

May 19, 2022

Emotional regulation is the ability to cope with situations that cause emotions like stress, anxiety or frustration. Sometimes, people with autism have a harder time regulating their emotions. They may rely on unique self-soothing strategies to deal with intense emotions, and either seek out or avoid sensory stimuli like bright lights, loud sounds and intense smells.  

In this Q&A, Arianna Esposito, BCBA and vice president of services and supports and life span programs at Autism Speaks, talks about some of these emotional regulation strategies.

Arianna Esposito

What are some signs that a person with autism is dysregulated?

Every person with autism manages their sensory input in a different way and their emotional regulation skills can vary. It’s difficult to make any blanket statements on the signs of dysregulation, but generally, any kind of change in behavior can indicate that a person is having a hard time managing their emotions. You may see an increase in things like self-stimulatory behavior, including flapping, stimming, pacing or rocking.

If the person is able to communicate their feelings or share what they’re experiencing, asking how they’re feeling is always a good indicator. However, if they are very dysregulated, it might be difficult for them to express how they are feeling through words.

It’s  also important to look at the environmental context to understand what’s happening. Is it a new environment? Is it an environment they have been in before? What was their experience like the last time they were there? These questions can provide clues and guidance to help you support the autistic person.

Sometimes, an environment might be anxiety-provoking or full of a lot of sensory input. That can be both good and bad. Sometimes, the individual may be sensory seeking and look for a lot of sensory stimulation from the environment. Other times, they may be sensory avoidant and try to get away from stimuli. Watching the individual’s behavior in the context of the environment can give you clues about what they are experiencing.

How can parents and caregivers teach their autistic children to better regulate their emotions?

Before being able to self-regulate, it’s important that there’s some baseline understanding of emotions. The child should not only be able to identify emotions, but also identify what the emotion looks and feels like. For example, what makes a person happy? What makes them anxious? 

Putting the identification first helps create the building blocks of emotional self-awareness, making it easier to understand how to manage over-stimulation or under-stimulation in the environment. If you’re not sure where to begin with teaching your loved one to identify and understand their emotions, ask your care team, your child’s teacher or their therapist for guidance.

What can self-soothing behaviors look like in autistic people?

Some autistic people are sensory avoidant, meaning they self-soothe by getting away from sounds, smells and other stimuli. Other people with autism regulate their emotions by seeking out more sensory input from the environment. For example, they may make loud noises, fidget, pace or rock back and forth. 

Not everyone is sensory seeking or sensory avoidant all the time. These emotional regulation behaviors are really dynamic and based on many things, including the environment, prior experiences and their physical and emotional state. It really is dependent on the person. 

How can others offer support when they witness these behaviors?

Often, non-autistic people have misconceptions about self-soothing behaviors that cause a lack of real community understanding and acceptance. They may expect  it to look like jumping up and down, stimming, flapping, pacing or fidgeting, but it could be going mute, going for a run or sitting in a quiet place.

Half of the challenge of emotional regulation as an autistic person is finding a place to be able to do it. Often, those behaviors can draw attention, questions, comments and a lot of misunderstanding. Community members can be supportive by just offering understanding and acceptance in that moment. Don’t ask a lot of questions and make comments, and just allow someone to self-soothe in the way that they feel the most comfortable. 

How can autistic adults learn to cope with their emotions in stressful situations?

Autism Speaks’ Roadmap to Self-Empowerment for Autistic Adults takes a deep dive into sensory issues and coping mechanisms. The Roadmap has a really great tool to help you understand what drains your battery, what recharges your battery and how to develop a plan for when you need to take a step back to recharge.

Learn more:

Autism Speaks does not provide medical or legal advice or services. Rather, Autism Speaks provides general information about autism as a service to the community. The information provided on our website is not a recommendation, referral or endorsement of any resource, therapeutic method, or service provider and does not replace the advice of medical, legal or educational professionals. Autism Speaks has not validated and is not responsible for any information, events, or services provided by third parties. The views and opinions expressed in blogs on our website do not necessarily reflect the views of Autism Speaks.

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